Phenomenology of design

Interested in the process of the object much more than in product types, Giovanni Innella observes it – from the physical piece to its perception – like an entomologist at his microscope.  

Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella is somewhat elusive. During the last two years, every time we talked on Skype, he was in a different part of the world: England, Thailand, Japan. He pursues his research projects and then moves to where he finds institutions who welcome him to develop his ideas. But physical nomadism is not the true indicator of his fleeting being: Innella eschews any univocal definition you might want to use to label his thinking. The motive resides, probably, in the fact that the thing that interests him more than any other is to explore processes from within.
Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella: GeoMerce (project with Gionata Gatto), 2015. Photo Matteo Cremonini

He is like a silent observer who records every tiny move; a script editor who gathers the secrets of the director and his protagonist taking an instant snapshot that reveals every paradox and uncertainty, every absurd liturgy in the making of.

Product types are therefore the least of his problems: from the object he reveals the process observing it like an entomologist at his microscope. And the process is not just what takes the idea to the product, but above all what goes from the physical piece to its perception.

Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella: GeoMerce (project with Gionata Gatto), 2015. Photo Matteo Cremonini

Domitilla Dardi: Let’s start with your education. You went to two of the most experimental schools of the last twenty years, Ivrea and Eindhoven. How was it?

Giovanni Innella: At Ivrea in reality I worked and didn’t study. I was inside a unit that was called E1 that did research for external clients. There, while some people were inventing Arduino, others were dealing with conceptual design. There were both aspects: those who worked on the engineering side and those who were not afraid to be called artists.

Domitilla Dardi: Did you talk about Arduino? Were you aware of the revolution that was taking place?

Giovanni Innella: Obviously I didn’t understand initially. But with Arduino, in 2005, I invented the Rf Id Mon Amour. It was a kit that enabled anyone to do small, interactive exhibitions. Any designer, without any technical skill, could create an interactive exhibition without having to ask anything of anybody.

Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella: RollingStones, 2015. Photo: Guido Fassio

Domitilla Dardi: A kit for becoming the curator of multimedia exhibitions. In your work, the idea of the exhibition and curation returns often. Why is that?

Giovanni Innella: I live two design lives: the first that designs objects; the other that seeks to articulate a critique of design in a visual and material way and takes the name of “Design and its double”. It is a body of work that I have been developing since 2008, to reflect on design and critique it. This research started in Eindhoven, where I had the good fortune to have among my mentors Barbara Visser, one of the leading contemporary artists in the Netherlands. She gave me a great gift saying to me: “This is art, use it how you want”. And I used it always as a tool, well aware that I wasn’t an artist. But the techniques and processes of art have served me to understand, observe and criticise design. This is why, if you look at “Skin of a Universal Chair” it is in reality the use of a critical tool to analyse an icon.

Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella: RollingStones, 2015. Photo: Guido Fassio

Domitilla Dardi: You came up with the idea of “skinning” something Universal.

Giovanni Innella: Precisely. I take objects, I cover them in silicone and then I open them and unfold the skin that is created. The reason why I do it is to reflect on the way we represent design, on the aesthetics of representation. I always thought that photography, that is the principal means with which we represent objects of design, was a big con. The reality is that when we look at the photograph of an object of design, rather than looking at the design, we are seeing the decisions that the photographer took to represent it. Instead I tried to find a way to document objects, to archive them in an impersonal and objective way without giving any subjective interpretation. So the silicon does for me what the photographic film does for the photographer.

Domitilla Dardi: So you create a physical film instead of one made from light.

Giovanni Innella: Yes. This lets me also do something else: to deconstruct the object, open it and see it all at once, without a front and a back, a top and bottom anymore. It is an “obscene” operation in the sense that it shows more than you would have wanted to see. These skins are also very ugly, unlike the objects that they document, that are beautiful. Therefore it is a critique also of aesthetic perception. And of consumption because in reality we consume much more representation of design than actual design.

Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella: Representation of a Design Magazine, 2008

Domitilla Dardi: Your have often worked on image and perception. In “Exhibition of Exhibitions” you do almost a critique of the phenomenology of displaying design.

Giovanni Innella: Around 2008, in the Netherlands, various museums were displaying design: vases by Hella Jongerius were on show at the Vanabbe, Studio Job at the Design House. So what I was interested in was looking at the museum as a place of production. If it is true that design is consumed via representation, and it it is true that the exhibition of design is a representation, then the museum is a place of production where these consumer objects are created. For this reason I felt authorised to cover in silicone the objects placed on show in these museums obtaining skins then I labeled them with a caption.

Domitilla Dardi: So including also the plinth, the base, as if it were all one thing.

Giovanni Innella: Yes, the plinth and also part of the floor, beyond the object, it was all covered. the result was that there was no longer context and object but just one thing, that is what in reality we consume. There is no longer the work of a designer in a museum but “Hella Jongerius’s vase at the Van Abbe on a plinth”.

Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella: Corredo, 2015. Photo Guido Fassio

Domitilla Dardi: But is the designer a critic?

Giovanni Innella: In my opinion, yes, the designer is a critic first and foremost of the industry in which he works. My first degree was in industrial design, an interesting discipline because before being able to do industrial design you have to define the industry. When I moved to Eindhoven, I realised that the industry of design is not necessarily the factory, that has never asked me to design anything. The industry can be the museum or the specialist magazine. My “industry” was that and the reason for “Design and its double” was to understand this interlocutor.

Domitilla Dardi: And after all these years have you understood it?

Giovanni Innella: No, if that were the case I would do more exhibitions and I would be published more!

Domitilla Dardi: What are you missing?

Giovanni Innella: Roles. Here’s an example: my last project, “Dowry”, is a series of crockery made with the ceramic of Deruta. I conceived it, designed and found someone to make it. Then though I was asked to organise the photoshoot, send out the press kit, find a museum that would do the opening. All this part, I always thought wasn’t part of my role and nobody taught me how to do it. At school we were taught to draw using CAD.

Giovanni Innella

Domitilla Dardi: And then you did designs that put on display the roles of those who display for a living? I’m talking about the section, Design Critique on your site, where the projects “Queens”, “Tunes” “Graphs”, “Words” are all your critical observations of the system, a micro-world, often self-referencing.

Giovanni Innella: It’s what I call “Design Suprematism”. Design in fact is that thing that will save the world but it is also the cocktail party where you make small talk. In this spectrum there is all that rhetoric and that language that I would like to depict. “Design Tunes” for example is an anti-manifesto in the form of a musical album. The word design in fact is for us designers a bit like the word love for singers: a heart-wrenching and deep thing, but also a rhyme, a rhetoric.

Domitilla Dardi:How many of these critical reflections then enter into the object? Or is it a case of two worlds that have different rules that can’t be compared? For example with the dowry do you want to make a criticism of the female condition in the tradition of the south or not?

Giovanni Innella: Not at all. The dowry speaks of a tradition that exists still in the south of Italy and of my desire to give it a new use. Before the gift of the dowry was made up of beautiful objects to keep in a showcase; my solution instead maintains the visual and symbolic impact but via a different formal aspect, it can be uncovered and always be on the table. Also the marble table, “Rolling Stones” refers to the past, to the marble furniture of the 1800s. I asked myself, if I had to make a piece of furniture in marble today, how would I do it? I would make it so you can move it easily. So when a problem is created, I try and find a solution.

Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella: Burkina Chair, 2011

Domitilla Dardi: So you have a totally different design approach between critique and practice ?

Giovanni Innella:The design of the product is a bit like a rebus in reverse: a rebus gives you the images and you have to arrive at the word, whereas here I have to get from the word to the image.

Domitilla Dardi: When you design, do you do it with a particular person in mind?

Giovanni Innella: Yes, I always look for an interlocutor. For example, “Design-a-fortune” was a design for a man who ran a Chinese restaurant in Newcastle and had four problems: few tips, hardly any reviews on Tripadvisor, the visitors who didn’t order the house dessert and the last, that nothing unexpected happened. So I decided to design him fortune cookies that in some way tried to resolve them. For example on contained the phrase: “A generous tip to our waiter Jason is an investment in your happiness”.

Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella: Design Queens, 2014. Li Edelkoort

Domitilla Dardi: So in the end we reach the conclusion that basic interaction is more human than technology.

Giovanni Innella: Yes, absolutely. Exquisitely human. For me design is a way to communicate and in fact I went to the Design Academy because I wanted to have my own voice; then I realised that in reality I wanted someone to talk to.

Domitilla Dardi: In Geomerce you worked in fact with Gionata Gatto and a very complex work came out of it. You analysed the agricultural production of plants that can extract heavy metals from the ground, in order to purify it, and what is more obtain an income from the sale of these materials.

Giovanni Innella: GeoMerce has within it a meta-meaning based on an analysis of what is value, what is capital. We were interested in entering into the merit of the process, but analysing it from within. We didn’t want an ascetic and extraneous criticism, but to use a method of analysis to propose a solution. For this it is a project that unites Design critique and Design practice.

Giovanni Innella
Giovanni Innella: Design Queens, 2014. Rossana Orlandi

Domitilla Dardi: A project that is both technological and visionary at the same time. Do you think that technology generates imagination or that imagination produces technology?

Giovanni Innella: In my case technology generates imagination, because I don’t have the capacity to develop it independently. I think that our society produces a lot of technology, that we under-use though. For example we could still do a great many things with the valve radio, but we haven’t had time to develop them because someone immediately presented us with “new technology”. To activate the imagination you need time to enter in the processes. Also to understand them and criticise them. Perhaps this is why industry, in search of quick results, doesn’t need someone to do this kind of work. And therefore I live with my suitcase always packed, always available to go where a research organisation lets me ask questions and come up with answers, just like the Advanced Institute of Industrial Technology is doing right now.

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